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Mainstream, VOL LII No 29, July 12, 2014

Harder Options for Pakistan

Monday 14 July 2014, by Apratim Mukarji

As Islamic jihadists in the arc comprising West Asia, northern Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan grow more resourceful and aggressive, the inherent threat to the stability of the Pakistan state has eventually forced the military and political establishment in the country to acknowledge the harsh reality.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb (the strike of the Prophet’s sword), launched on June 15 by the armed forces in North Waziristan, that is born of this belated acknowledgement, draws its authority from both the Army and the civilian government, and is declared to be the final solution to the jihadist danger. The Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif said in Peshawar on June 16: “All terrorists along with their sanctuaries must be eliminated without any discrimination.” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the National Assembly on the same day: “Our places of worship, educational institutions, airports, military installations, markets, and even our houses have become unsafe.”

Pakistan had had enough of terrorism and the military operation in the North Waziristan tribal region launched on the day would continue until the terrorist safe havens were destroyed in the country, he said. The operation had been launched after the Taliban failed to reciprocate his “sincere” efforts to pursue peace talks with the group. “On the one hand,” he said, “we were pursuing dialogue, and on the other hand, we were being targeted. From the Islamabad courts to the Karachi airport, we were attacked... We will change the fate of this country and under no circumstances will allow our country to serve as a safe haven for terrorists.”

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its various jihadist associates were so successful in jolting the military and government out of their long-held, self-serving policy of tolerating and exploiting them selectively by mounting the successful attack on the Karachi airport on June 9 that both the institutions are now publicly committed to finish the menace.

As the operation progresses and we are treated to periodic reports of the numbers of jihadists (terrorists, according to the military) annihilated, the world must wait to see the outcome. Meanwhile, the accumulated result of the prolonged folly of a state-sponsored and tolerated jihadist-friendly policy has clearly so unnerved the citizenry that it is no longer an exception to come across admissions that Pakistan has possibly already manifested the characteristics of a failed state.

While the public exasperation at the steady and uninterrupted rise of the jihadists has finally forced the civilian government to take its stand, the Army cannot obviously allow the challenge to its authority and capacity to continue any further. It has to be noted that following the spectacular attack, the Taliban announced in a triumphant tone that this was part of the reprisals the jihadist group was exacting from the government for the killing of its leader Hakimullah Masud, done to death by a US drone last November, and for the “ruse” of holding sham peace negotiations, and that further attacks would follow.

The Army was particularly alarmed by the disclosure that it was Uzbek jihadists living in North Waziristan who played the main part in the attack and that the Pakistani Taliban assisted them. Right from the days Osama bin Laden established the Al-Qaeda headquarters in the Kandahar province of eastern Afghanistan and non-South Asian Islamists began to pour into the Taliban-ruled country, the main training camps for them have always existed in the tribal lands of North Waziristan. When in late January air strikes killed Hakimullah Masud’s successor, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, as many as thirtythree Uzbeks and three Germans were also slain. Jihadists from Western Europe, Russia, China, and various Central Asian states have traditionally been sheltered, trained and armed in the region. It was after Afghanistan slipped out of the Taliban’s grip and its leadership was forced to flee to Pakistan that foreign jihadists living in North Waziristan started to move out to other parts of Pakistan and were at times visible in major cities and towns. The Pakistani Taliban has, of course, spread across the country and their sleeper cells are known to have stayed hidden in Karachi and other cities for years. It was these cells which were said to have been activated in the attack on the Karachi airport.

Interestingly, the Pakistani Taliban have been systematically seeking to destabilise Pakistan ever since 2007 when they first emerged as a formidable jihadist force. The wonder is that the Army had still never gone all out against them, always leaving leeway for them to escape and regroup. As Ahmed Rashid notes in Descent into Chaos How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia,

Today (in 2008) seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Balochistan province, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders live on further north, in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), as do the militias of Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Al-Qaeda has a safe haven in FATA, and along with them reside a plethora of Asian and Arab terrorist groups who are now expanding their reach into Europe and the United States. The United States and NATO have failed to understand that the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarised madrassas, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced traditional Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.

How true Rashid’s words ring today as the Pakistan Army goes all out to destroy the jihadists.

Rashid also chronicles the astonishing progress of the Taliban in Pakistan. For this, he holds responsible the “failed” policies of the Army and of President Pervez Musharraf rather than the successful deployment of a well-crafted strategy by the jihadist group. The world’s terrorist leaders were already living on the Pakistan side of the border, but with the creation of the Pakistani Taliban, they are now able to expand their influence, base areas, and training camps “at will” across northern Pakistan.

Any factual analysis of what has gone wrong with Pakistan’s policy on tackling terrorist groups logically leads to the conclusion that it is the selective approach of the Army and the government to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban respectively and home-grown terrorist groups like the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba which lies at the root of the problem. To the extent that the official acknowledgement of this fallacious policy has gone, when the Army laid down the few options still left to improve the situation, it told the Nawaz Sharif Government in early June that there is really no option but to eliminate all the terrorist groups active in Pakistan. It is no secret that the Punjab Government run by Sharif’s party has protected these groups. As for the Army’s and the ISI’s (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) patronage of the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, it has been equally well-known. But now that the US State Department has declared these two Pakistan-based terrorist groups as global terrorists, both the Pakistan Government and the Army have to take a call.

A sincere anti-jihadist campaign, however, is bound to bring the Pakistani establishment face-to-face with a major contradiction. If what the government and the Army proclaim as a total annihilation operation progresses to its logical conclusion, the Afghan Taliban and all foreign jihadists would have to be driven out of the country. Considering the terrain on both the sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, this is well-neigh impossible for the armed forces to achieve.

But, more importantly, this policy militates against Pakistan’s fundamental policy of seeking a strategic depth in Afghanistan in order to keep India at bay and to achieve and sustain considerable strategic influence over Afghanistan.

As foreign troops keep leaving Afghanistan incrementally, the Afghan Taliban have already begun to occupy spaces rendered vacant by the process. For example, US troops vacated the Sangin district of the Helmand province in May and, by June 19, “about 800 fighters started to storm four districts of Helmand,...and at least 21 Afghan forces have died and close to 40 civilians were killed,” the provincial government informed. This information was confirmed by the Afghan Government in Kabul.

Thus, as Operation Zarb-e-Azb rolls on, the immediate future is by no means discernible. And where does a major theme of the latest edition of the Pakistan Army publication, the “Green Book”, fit in, namely, that the “emerging India-US nexus” confirms that the “Great Game” being played in the region is posing to be a serious threat to the security and integrity of Pakistan?

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.